Deputies who stopped her car were concerned that they had not established probable cause for the stop. Instead of conducting field sobriety testing, they sent her home with a sober driver.
The 26-year-old woman charged with DUI manslaughter in connection with an Oct. 18, 2014, crash that killed 58-year-old Palm Coast resident Diane Upton and injured several others was stopped by local deputies about an hour before the fatal crash, and released, according to Sheriff’s Office records.
Though deputies noted in reports that the woman, Rebecca Lawless, seemed drunk, they did not conduct sobriety testing, instead sending Lawless home with a sober driver.
The reason: Deputies were concerned that they may not have been established reasonable suspicion to stop her car in the first place.
“They decided not to do an investigation because they were concerned that had they done the investigation, made the arrest and the courts threw it out later, well, the case has been dismissed,” Flagler County Sheriff’s Office spokesman James Troiano said. “All they had is an impaired person, don’t know to what degree, we never measured her breath to determine her blood alcohol content. And so they decided not to do an investigation because of the stop. They were afraid they would lose the whole thing. They were trying to be fair, and it’s a legal alternative in dealing with these cases,” he said.
Lawless was driving in the Seminole Woods area at about 8:30 p.m. Oct. 18, 2014, when a deputy responding to a 911 call about a seemingly intoxicated driver pulled over her Camry.
The deputy “was able to detect signs of impairment,” he wrote in a report.
“When speaking with Lawless, I immediately noticed slurred speech and odd eye movements, in addition to what I would call a ‘1000 yard stare,’ the deputy wrote. The deputy ordered Lawless out of the car, and “smelled a strong odor of alcohol on her breath. She openly admitted to having (words redacted from report) before driving this evening.”
A passenger in the car, Kimberly Ann Burgos, was half-asleep in the passenger seat and told a deputy she’d also been drinking.
Lawless “became combative” with another officer on the scene — who knew her personally — and was briefly detained for officer safety, according to the report.
Then she was released after deputies had her call a sober driver, her ex-boyfriend, Jahmar Dunn, to drive her home.
"It's a decision that's legal, it's moral, it's ethical, it meets within our guidelines, and we have to support it. ... Our hearts and prayers go out to the family. We're sorry for your loss. But please understand that there's nothing that we did that was inappropriate."
— James Troiano, Flagler County Sheriff's Office spokesman
Deputies wrote in incident reports that they released Lawless out of concern that the initial traffic stop was conducted without probable cause, and any actions they could take thereafter — for instance, putting Lawless through sobriety testing, which they did not do — would be thrown out in court.
“Based on the circumstances involved and Deputy Harvey not observing any traffic violation, I determined that Deputy Harvey did not establish reasonable suspicion to stop the Toyota Camry,” a supervising deputy wrote in a report. “Deputy Barile and myself determined that a DUI investigation could not be continued in good faith, due to there being no reasonable suspicion existing for the original contact with the Toyota Camry.”
Deputies watched Dunn take the wheel of the Camry, with Lawless in the right rear passenger seat, and head off, turning north on Seminole Woods Boulevard.
About an hour later, Lawless, again behind the wheel, blew through a red light heading west on State Road 100 at the intersection of Landing Boulevard and struck Upton’s southbound 2005 Chrysler, killing Upton, and injuring Upton’s two passengers, 24-year-old Kalyn Upton and 5-year-old Vivian Upton, as well as Burgos.
Troiano said the Sheriff’s Office had found no evidence of improper contact on the part of the deputies involved in the traffic stop.
The 911 call about a possible drunk driver came in about 15 minutes before the traffic stop, he noted, and the deputies who conducted the stop did not see any traffic violations.
Deciding to release Lawless to a sober driver, Troiano said, “Is a decision that’s legal, it’s moral, it’s ethical, it meets within our guidelines, and we have to support it. ... Our hearts and prayers go out to the family. We’re sorry for your loss. But please understand that there’s nothing that we did that was inappropriate.”
Such cases fall to the discretion of the deputies on the scene, Troiano said.
“We want our deputies to have discretion like that in the field,” he said. “Not when it’s clear that there’s impairment, and we’re not going to arrest — that’s unacceptable. We never got to that in this case.”
By the date of the crash, Lawless had already received civil penalties in three other traffic cases in Flagler County, including a 2007 careless driving case, according to county court records.